It’s obvious from the opening scenes of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that wet around the ears documentarian Joe Cross never went to film school, never debated the merits of gonzo, expository or observational approaches to documentary. Cross is the antithesis of a filmmaking expert, an inexperience he spins into a virtue as the audience watch him, a true blue Aussie bloke, drive across America, juice ever in hand, not to make great art per se but to better his health and inspire the people he meets to do the same.

The film details Cross’ physical and geographic journey as he slims down from 140 kilos using a juice only fasting diet that lasts for 60 days. It’s sprinkled with short animated clips extolling the importance of good diet and exercise. The official homepage is sponsored by Breville, and after a few screenings scattered across the country the film will be distributed by — of all companies — Woolworths, which, in addition to the its rosy marketing materials (“3000 miles….60 days of juice…countless lives changed”) suggests something of a protracted infomercial, a whopping big ad for the supermarket food and veg aisles. Audiences are skeptical these days, and when they see a website like this they think “product.”

And so the heart warming clarion call for self-improvement that forms the core of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead — which turns out to be one of the most inspiring documentaries about healthy living ever made — comes as something of a surprise.

When the doco begins Joe Cross walks around with a gut that looks like he “swallowed a sheep.” He also has a rare autoimmune disease, controlled by a plethora of daily pills. He explains that, as a finance whiz, he spent his life chasing wealth and forgot about health, and it’s now high time to tilt the scales in the right direction.

Cross wisely chose America as the playground for his life-changing exercise because A) the film subsequently has obvious exportability and B) he visits places full of greasy, fatty food (perfect for temptation) and big-gut clientele (perfect for case studies). “I used to eat two of these,” he says, addressing the camera in a pizza takeout joint. “Not two slices. Too whole pizzas.”

The days pass, his stomach shrinks and his juice intake increases. The film bounces along with vox pop bits and bobs thrown into the mixer. “I don’t fast. I eat fast but I don’t fast,” says one street dweller. “If you don’t want to be constipated eat the right foods,” says another. And one more, delivered totally deadpan: “I feel fine. I’ve had heart surgery.”

But the film’s dynamic changes after Cross meets obese truck driver Phil Staples, who suffers from the same rare condition as him. Staples glumly shares that his own family enquire about his death, ask him about coffin sizes and cremation. The only exercise he has takes place between truck and truck stop and it depresses him when people call him “big guy.” Staples is a pathetic, remorseful figure; so fat, so unhealthy, he’s viewed upon as the walking dead — a hot dog or two away from a heart attack. “He was on the border of suicide. He was trying to kill himself with food,” says one relative. In current affairs parlance, Staples is what you call “good talent.”

So, juxtaposed alongside Cross’s physical challenge, comes another, more important quest — to save a stranger from death by a thousand burgers. Cross isn’t a Morgan Spurlock, no snake oil merchant flogging a cheap stunt. He clearly wants to make a good film with good talent, which requires mild show boating and controlled didacticism, though his enthusiasm is unquestionably genuine. Cross builds empathy with the audience, warms us into his core message about controlling hedonism and embracing self-discipline. As a film the sum of its parts is a shade disconnected, with bits and bobs sprouting here and there, separated from the masthead, but the human connections forged carry Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead across the line with flying colours.

This is what reality TV should be: real lives depicted with tenderness and truth, rolled into a package that advocates change or sends a message. Though pointed firmly in a specific direction, with a specific solution in mind, Cross presents multiple points of view and reaches out to — rather than insults — the viewer. Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead will do infinitely more to inspire audiences than something smugger and sharper, like Super Size Me.

Cross delved into the documentary medium partly for self-improvement and partly magnanimously and has juiced together something special: a real life Pay it Forward, where one person’s inspiration inspires another, and the chain continues right down to the bottom of the line, to where even seen-it-all-before critics will be shocked to find themselves warmed and inspired. Not many documentaries can genuinely claim to provide a life-changing experience for many of its viewers. This is one of them.

Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead DVD will be available nationally at Woolworths from December 7 or online at www.jointhereboot.com.  

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